While still partially housebound by lockdown and profoundly depressed by George Floyd’s murder I prepared to spend a few enviably happy hours once again delving into the many Beethoven symphony cycles that have come my way for review. But my mind kept harking back to the Secretary of State and Social Care Matt Hancock’s rather patronising mantra on last night’s Coronavirus briefing: ‘black lives matter’. Sorry? Do we need to be reminded of that vital fact? Would it have occurred to anyone that black lives don’t matter? Then, by chance, a small package landed on my mat. Its contents, a quite remarkable work by the gifted American conductor-composer-pianist Michael Tilson Thomas, ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ for narrator (in this case Isabel Leonard) and orchestra, proof, if proof were needed, that in 1940s Holland Jewish lives certainly didn’t matter, at least not as far the Nazi occupiers and collaborators were concerned.
The philosopher and social critic Theodor Adorno once famously asserted that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Sadly, we could apply Adorno’s words to numerous genocides that have happened since. But then to experience Anne Frank’s poetic style as penned during that same period and Tilson Thomas’s affecting musical response to it rather contradicts that assertion. Tilson Thomas’s work opens, not among expected shadows, but to an incoming breeze when windows might be thrown open on a sunny spring morning, the sort of setting that would prompt any youngster to rush into the nearby fields. Still, the route to tragedy doesn’t take long to register. At the beginning of part two Frank confides, via her diary, to her imaginary friend Kitty the weight of restrictions on all Jews – curfews, not being able to sit in their own gardens, being forbidden to visit all public places (cinemas, theatres, swimming pools, sports grounds) …. Sound familiar? Superficially, very superficially …maybe. Tilson Thomas scores all this with a kicking/dancing sense of protest that harks back to Leonard Bernstein. In fact, throughout the work he realises musical prophecies that had long been hinted at by Mahler (most notably), Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Copland, even, ultimately, the ‘darkness to light’ aspect of Steve Reich’s stylistically very different masterpiece ‘Different Trains’.
Tilson Thomas’s employment of instruments is often exquisite, his sense of melody equally so and the beautifully recorded San Francisco Symphony plays magnificently. Make no mistake this is extremely memorable music. If you passed a house where it was being played you’d likely knock on the door to find out what it is. In fact, at just 42 minutes, ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ could happily be used to introduce youngsters to modern concert music, not only because it has an instant and dramatic appeal but because the (excellent) narrator keeps us gripped and the score backs up her words rather like a quality film soundtrack might. Were President Donald Trump to declare a day of National Mourning for George Floyd – which he should surely do – then ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ could well be performed in Floyd’s memory, reminding us that you don’t have to be Jewish to be murdered on racial grounds.
There’s a coupling, too, Meditations on Rilke, six reflective, and sometimes animated, settings of the great German poet whose oeuvre ranges across so many aspects of our inner lives. MTT’s work is a sort-of great nephew to Mahler’s song cycle Das Lied von Der Erde (The Song of the Earth), the fine singers here being mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. Perhaps the best place to sample would be the fourth song Immer wieder, Again and Again, about lovers lying together beneath ancient trees. Tilson Thomas’s Mahlerian credentials are conspicuous by their presence. As modern – or nearly modern – music goes, you won’t do better than either work.
Tilson Thomas: ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’; Meditations on Rilke
Soloists, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas
SFS Media SFS 821936-0079-2
Also available for auditioning via Spotify